By Travelin' Gal Maxine Albert
The recent launch of Jet Blue's direct flights from JFK to Cartagena is great news for New Yorkers. Now jetsetters and all aficionados of vibrant, romantic locales can travel seamlessly to this favorite haunt of well-heeled Latin Americans in just over four hours. Colombia's most popular vacation destination boasts a magical ancient walled city, an open-air museum of the best of Spanish colonial architecture. If you like charming historic sites, gastronomic cuisine, Latin music, sizzling nightlife and the warm Caribbean – you will love Cartagena.
My morning flight arrived just in time for lunch at the beachfront Holiday Inn that debuted in late 2011. In South America, the Holiday Inn is comparable to a South Beach chic luxury boutique hotel and is in a whole different category than its counterpart in the U.S. With spacious suites smartly decorated, large comfy beds with softest linens and pillows, generous bathrooms, oceanfront terrace, fitness center, pool and Blue Restaurant & Bar Lounge. The stylish hotel is part of the IHG brand that will be opening the much anticipated beachfront InterContinental Cartagena in 2014. Situated in affluent Bocagrande, this luxe property will house a world class spa and top eateries.
After an exceptional lunch at Blue Restaurant, I hit the beach in front of the hotel and took a refreshing swim in the ocean. Next, I settled into a lounge chair, sipped a piña colada and enjoyed the cool breeze as I read the evocative stories of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One of my favorite authors, whose novel became the movie, Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez hails from Cartagena, the locale that inspired his mystical writing.
Sunset and Romance:
At sunset, I headed to Café del Mar, atop the ancient walls with a view of the illuminated city and the Caribbean. It's the perfect place to kick back with a minty mojito and take in the spectacular canvas of gold, mauve and azure. Take a scenic evening horse-drawn carriage ride through the narrow cobblestoned streets of the enchanting city and feel the magic. The coachman will point out famous monuments and regale you with the city's storied past as you pass old world plazas, quaint shops and buildings, outdoor cafes, posh restaurants, guitar players and stylish people strolling the medieval streets.
Take In The Sights:
Check out the San Felipe fortress and marvel at its tunnels, secret passageways and glorious vista. Then proceed to the ancient walled city. The best way to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is on foot. Take in the colorful architecture, rich heritage and unique old world charm. Meander the twisty streets past churches, monasteries and pink, blue and yellow restored colonial mansions with flower-strewn balconies. At every turn, there's a gem – chic boutiques like Upalema, Mario Hernandez and Bettina Spitz, or a trendy place for an aperitif and tapas. The city oozes glamour, handsome men in white linen shirts and pants and beautiful women elegantly dressed.
The official entrance is Clock Gate, which comes out onto historic Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages). Picturesque Plaza de Bolivar, lined with outdoor cafes, is ideal for people watching. Nearby is the Gold Museum, with striking jewelry that eluded the Conquistadores.
Delectable Dining and Swinging Nightlife:
Cartagena's gastronomic cuisine offers both haute international and regional dishes highlighting freshly caught seafood, locally sourced vegetables, tropical fruits and the addictive coconut rice. With so many options, here are some standouts. Swank Blue Restaurant & Lounge in the Holiday Inn Morros specializes in gourmet Mediterranean and Caribbean fare. Situated in a fort overlooking the marina and its huge yachts, exclusive Club de Pesca offers delicious seafood and dazzling views.
In The Old City:
My first night I headed out to La Vitrola, for inspired Colombian fare, where Cartagena's glitterati dine and dance. With ceiling fans and swaying palms, the ambiance is old Havana. Just as I tasted the mouth-watering grouper with tamarind sauce, the band started playing a soulful Cuban song and in walked Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had not been seen in the city for two years. I met him; he was lovely.
Food lovers will delight at Hotel Santa Clara's gourmet Restaurant 1621 specializing in sophisticated dishes reflecting the best in vibrant Caribbean cuisine. For great Italian fare in high style, dine amid lush gardens at Vera in Silvia Tcherassi's Hotel, Colombia's leading fashion designer. Sip a cocktail in the buzzing bar before you sample the creative international cuisine at the very hip and sceney Alma Restaurant housed in the Hotel Casa San Agustin. Relish a sumptuous meal at El Santisimo where French-trained chefs prepare classic Colombian dishes. Enjoy sublime regional fare at Restaurant Don Juan including out-of-this world grilled shrimp with passion fruit sauce and pico de gallo.
After dinner, the action is at the clubs where revelers dance to live orchestras playing salsa and the sounds of Cuba. With many choices, such as Cachao and Bazurto Social Club, my favorite is Café Havana, where Hillary Clinton also danced the night away.
How to Go:
Jet Blue, with spacious seats and leg room, now offers direct service from JFK to Cartagena.